I should preface this review with some context: my everyday device is an iPhone 5. I’ve become less adamant in my love for all things Apple in recent years. Part of that has to do with improvements to Android and Windows, and part of that has to do with Apple’s tunnel vision. That said, the HTC One Max was as far from my daily device as I could get: enormous, bright screen, a ton of potential for personalization and chock full of bloatware right out of the box.
Before the HTC One Max arrived in the mail, I was sure it was too big to be practical. I’d already made up my mind that anything more than five inches was at the very least risking a sprained thumb. However, after spending a long Thanksgiving weekend with HTC’s 5.9-inch phablet, I’m left utterly conflicted and with a slight crush on an Android device.
Good looks, specs and a decent camera
The HTC One Max has a pleasing brushed aluminum back plate, with a white bezel. There’s a volume rocker and power button on the upper right side of the bezel, and virtual home and back buttons on the bottom; pretty standard for an Android device. The external speakers are impressive but then they’re also speakers on a phone and there’s really only so much you can say about that. The phone feels solid in the hand, if a bit slippery given its size and the smooth finish of the materials. To that point, pretty much any phablet screams for a case of some kind, because eventually your comparatively small hands are going to drop it. Overall, the aesthetics of the HTC One Max are pleasant, but let’s be honest, anyone holding this massive slab of technology to their head is going to look like an idiot. If this is the direction you’re going in, invest in a Bluetooth headset or a pair of headphones for making phone calls.
In the specs department, the One Max is loaded. It’s powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor with 1.7GHz quad-core CPUs and 2GB of RAM. The model I tested was from Sprint and supported both 3G CDMA and LTE. HTC has done some interesting things with the most recent version of its HTC Sense UI, which now includes a snappy content aggregation homescreen that can be curated to include news sources and social feeds relevant to the user’s tastes. Performance was quick, with very little lag. Perhaps most impressive was the 3,300 mAh battery, which kept the HTC One Max and its giant screen going strong for more than a day with heavy use.
As for the rear-facing camera, HTC isn’t saying anything about megapixels and has instead deferred in its specs to its imaging technology as “HTC UltraPixel Camera.” Unfortunately, pictures taken on the HTC UltraPixel Camera do not do the device’s brilliant screen justice. The images I took rendered yellowish whites indoors and the shutter speed lagged to create significant blurring. The front-facing camera included a 2.1 megapixel, 88° wide angle lens with HDR capability and 1080p Full HD video recording.
Here is where my belief in Apple is renewed. HTC has rushed its implementation of its fingerprint unlocking technology. The sensor is found on the back of the device, precariously near the camera, and requires that the user swipe the sensor in order to the complete the unlock. Given the size of the phone, the act of swiping the sensor doesn’t feel natural. It doesn’t always work and most of the time, you’re going to overshoot the sensor and smudge your camera. Why the comparison to Apple? Because Apple got this feature absolutely right with the implementation of fingerprint recognition on the iPhone 5s. On the 5s, the technology works because it’s been built into the existing home button, with which users are already familiar. In the case of the One Max, I actually disabled the fingerprint sensor because it was so frustrating in so many different ways. This was most definitely the differentiating feature HTC was hoping it would be, but in all the wrong ways.
To phab or not too fab
There’s a reason it’s called a phablet, obviously. The phablet falls onto the device size spectrum somewhere between a phone and a tablet. As simple a concept as that is, I kept coming back to it as I used the HTC One Max. That extra screen real estate really does make your phone feel like tablet. And there are great advantages to having those two devices thrown into one form factor. Everything from phone calls to texts and emails are at your fingertips. I can’t tell you the number of times I was surfing the Web, wondering why I would ever need any device beyond this one? I could comfortably watch movies on this, while also complete light word processing and editing through a web-based service or app (admittedly an external keyboard might be needed in this case). And so it went, the slow falling in love with the phablet idea, specifically the HTC One Max, as we lounged around the house Thursday and Friday.
But eventually, we had to venture beyond our cozy abode, and herein lies the crux of my reservations. There’s really nowhere comfortable to store a device this size. Throw it in the front pocket of your jeans, and you can’t sit down. Throw it in the back pocket of your jeans, and you’ll need to remove it before sitting down. I actually had it in the back pocket of my jeans, forgot about it, sat down, and the back plate appeared to bend just barely at the top. I can imagine this happening often if I were always carrying around a device of this size.
An Inconclusive Conclusion
Throughout my time with the HTC One Max, my son was constantly over my shoulder, asking whether I thought I would be interested in a device this size if Apple were to bring one to market. To be honest, I didn’t have an answer for him. At $149 online, with a two-year contract (Sprint), or $599 unlocked, the HTC One Max is a great deal compared to other devices on the market. I was able to move from my iPhone 5 to this device fairly seamlessly given how heavily I lean on Google’s services, so I have to credit the One Max with actually alleviating me of the tunnel vision that Apple has engrained in me. After my time with this device, I can for the first time say that Android may very well be in my future.
The bottom line, however, is that this review ended up focusing more on the phablet as a form factor. To be sure, the HTC One Max is a successful execution of the phablet, and anyone looking for this kind of outsized device would do well to consider this model. I’m going to wait and see what Apple does next year, but my thinking right now is that there’s a reason we have these two distinct device categories. The smartphone offers portability, and it owes its versatility and popularity to that smaller form factor. The tablet, on the other hand, really is a device for the home. For now, I’m hard pressed to justify the sacrifices I’d have to make in portability for the luxuries afforded by more screen real estate. That said, I can definitely envision other lifestyles that might welcome this increasingly popular amalgam.